Archive for the ‘Publishing’ Category

Having coffee with a literary agent…

April 7th, 2014 | Agents, Career, CBA, Current Affairs, Deep Thoughts, Publishing, Questions from Beginners, Self-Publishing, The Business of Writing, Trends | 5 Comments

Okay, so this month I’m asking people to send in questions — What is it you’ve always wanted to talk with a literary agent about? If you could sit down over coffee and just have a conversation, what would you ask? Send those in, and I’ll do my best to answer your questions. Here are some questions that came in…

Do you recommend self-publishing with your authors?

Absolutely. I think authors today have to think about doing a variety of projects through a number of venues. That could mean they are working with traditional publishers, non-traditional publishers, niche publishers, and self-publishing some projects. I’m a big supporter of what I consider the “hybrid” author.

What are the challenges of agenting in today’s publishing climate?

Well, agenting (like writing) has never been easy. You have to understand the market, have relationships with the editors, know what each house is looking for, keep current on things like trends and publishing contracts. Most importantly, in today’s market agents are called upon to be part of the marketing effort — something that we didn’t used to do much of. But in terms of the recent challenges, I would say advances are down, and slots are limited, making a debut for an author harder than ever. There are more books available, so it’s tougher to help an author get noticed. And there’s also been a bit of an anti-agent movement going on among the indie-publishing crowd, which I think is fueled by people who really do not understand the publishing business. But I have faced that a bit over the past couple of years, and it’s been interesting — people who really don’t know the industry, but are absolutely certain they know that an agent is unnecessary. I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t a challenge we face today.

I’ve heard you mention a couple times that you have some reservations about Amazon — can you explain to me in simple terms what the problem is?

Sure. I love Amazon. A great, forward-thinking company. They do a fabulous job selling books, and have positioned themselves to be the sole purveyor of ebooks. But… if the entire indie publishing movement is based on one company, we’re going to have a problem. Because Amazon, while I generally love them, is definitely a cut-throat, predatory company. (I’m not criticizing them. I’m just offering an opinion on their tactics.) We can say they’re just practicing good business when they lower prices to the point that they squeeze out other companies, but be aware that, as soon as it’s clear they are the only company selling ebooks online, they will cut their royalty rates. (They currently pay a 70% royalty on self-published projects. If there is no one to compete with them… why pay out 70%? Why not pay out a much smaller amount?) Lest you think that’s a scare tactic on my part, recently Amazon realized they didn’t have any real competition for self-published audio books. So what did they do? They cut their royalty rates from 90% to 40% Overnight. With no warning. And no negotiation, either — if you want to work with their ACX service to do your self-published audio book, you can expect to make 40% from now on. What happens when B&N.com and the iBookstore and the Kobo bookstore go out of business? You think Amazon will still pay 70%? Not if they don’t have to. So I love them… but I tend to think monopolies are dangerous. We’re in the Golden Age of publishing at the moment. A huge shift in royalties will mean far less money for authors, and an end to the halcyon days of indie publishing.

Since you seem to keep your finger on the pulse of fiction, what trends do you see in today’s fiction publishing market?

I don’t know that I have my finger on the pulse… and some days I wonder if there IS a pulse, at least on the CBA side. But some things I’ve noticed: Historicals are struggling; contemporary stories are where it’s at. Amish has waned, but it’s still a sub-genre that works because it’s sort of a blend between historical and contemporary. Paranormal has faded. New Adult has been hot, but unfortunately it’s turning into nothing more than upper-edge YA with explicit sex scenes. (Porn for an early 20′s readership, in other words.) A shame. Of course, romance just keeps selling — especially contemporaries with people who have interesting jobs or live in fascinating places. And romantic suspense seems to be growing as well (at least in our part of the business). I tend to think CBA YA is a major struggle, and wonder what’s going to happen with the genre. (My guess? It blends into spec fiction, and the spec side grows some. But the problem with that theory is that it’s never happened. Sci fi/fantasy has never been more than a slice of the overall publishing market. So what do I know?) On the nonfiction side, memoir is hot, so all you fiction people may want to use your storytelling skills and use your fiction technique to tell a nonfiction story. Books in the evergreen categories of money management, healthy lifestyle, career success, healthy relationships are also continuing to sell.

Of course, ebooks are the rage, and a growing percentage of all publishing. (While only a third of the sales of legacy publishers, they amount for roughly half of all books sold if you include all the startup, mini, and indie publishing ventures.) And, if you want me to talk about the business side of publishing, it should be noted that publishers have all gone to e-contracts (that is, a digital document, rather than a paper one). Also e-royalty reports. And e-catalogues. And e-editing. And e-breakfast, for all I know. Everybody is posting their books, so there is a boatload of under-edited, crappy novels out there, making it harder than ever for an author to get noticed. There are fewer editors, particularly at CBA houses, fewer slots for debut novelists at legacy houses, more expectations for authors to do their own marketing, less editing than ever, smaller advances, but growing royalty rates. And, of course, more crappy agents who don’t know jack and I have to apologize for their stupid errors. (I need to do a blog on this some day.) And more micro-publishers, most doing ebooks only, and starting to make their mark in the publishing market. That help you?

Have you always wanted to sit down with a literary agent and have a conversation? Here’s your chance. Send me a question, or post it in the “comments” section, and I’ll get to it this month.

If I were having brunch with a literary agent…

April 4th, 2014 | Agents, Career, CBA, Conferences, Current Affairs, Publishing, Questions from Beginners, Self-Publishing, The Business of Writing | 3 Comments

I’m spending the month answering questions authors say they would ask if they could sit down and have a conversation with me. I’ll be doing this the entire month of April, and I’m trying to get to all the questions that get sent in.

Can I query an agent if I’ve posted one or more chapters of my book online?

It depends on the agent, but with MacGregor Literary (and with many other agencies) YES we would look at a book that has been posted online. That’s one of the things that has changed over the past couple of years.

When an agent receives a standard commission, does it all stay with the agent or is it split with the agency?

If the agent works for a medium-sized agency, then yes, that commission is going to be split. Part of it will be paid to the agent, and part will remain with the agency. If the agent works for a large agency where he or she is paid a salary, the commission goes to the agency, but a bonus will probably be paid at the end of the year, depending on the size of the deal. Of course, at a small agency, the agent is probably keeping the entire commission.

How might I find the most appropriate agents to query? The usual advice seems to be to read agent blogs and websites, read the Guide to Literary Agents, and comb the acknowledgements in books by comparable writers. I’ve done a good deal of that. The problem: By vocation I’m an academic. I write religious non-fiction for a non-academic readership. Most people in my line of work write for other scholars and don’t have agents, and I haven’t been finding people like me on agency lists of authors — though my search has not been exhaustive. Like most of my colleagues, I sold my first book (to IVP) without an agent. Now it seems an having agent would be very helpful indeed.

I would agree that doing some research is the best way to locate an appropriate agent. You may want to add Publishers Marketplace (PM), which has a searchable database of agents and deals dating back six or seven years, and allows you to search by genre or key word. (PM is $20 per month, and well worth the price.) But if you’re writing for a trade audience (that is, not a scholarly audience, but the average reader who is walking into Barnes & Noble or looking for a book on Amazon), I think there are several good agents out there (and even more bad ones, frankly). Have a look at who is contracting the books, see who is already representing books similar to yours, and maybe ask around with some experienced authors. You may want to go to a couple of good conferences, where you can meet agents face to face — in some cases you can save money by going for one day, rather than paying for the whole schlamozzle.

I looked at the workshop line up for RWA National in July and more than half the conference is dedicated to self-publishing. A big part of my local chapter has self-published as well. I admire how a few authors are turning self-publishing into an empire, but for the vast majority of self-published authors it’s hit-or-miss. Yet there seems to be pressure on authors to self-publish these days. Do you think this direction is because it’s harder than ever to break into traditional fiction?

I think two things are at play… First, it’s as hard as it ever was to break into traditional publishing, and self-publising offers a potential opportunity to frustrated writers. I understand that frustration, and recognize why authors want to self-pub their works. Second, there is what I call the Amway Publishing Myth — that is, “All you have to do is to post your book onto Amazon and you’ll be making money, and soon you’ll be a star and the magical publishing faeries will smile on you.” Don’t get me wrong — I”m all for authors going indie and self-pubbing some titles. But it’s not a magic formula to success, it’s almost impossible to get noticed (Amazon now has 15 MILLION titles for sale), and my experience is that a lot of the folks who are pushing self-publishing as some sort of cure-all for every unhappy author are simply hucksters and wannabes. I hear from too many writers who talk big about their fabulous self-pubbed book, only to discover they’ve sold a couple dozen copies and made almost nothing. (Here I”ll be nice and say that if you don’t care about making money at your writing, and you’re only posting books on Amazon to express your creativity, then bully for you. But I do this as a business, so my inclination is to roll my eyes at people who say they don’t care of their ebooks sell or not.)

I have two questions which I would like to have a professional opinion about. First, friend of mine said the subject matter for my story may not be “publishable,” as it’s an historical about an unmarried girl from a wealthy family who is pregnant by a man of her social standing who rejects her. I’d wondered if this was too controversial for the Christian market. Second, Margaret Sanger had begun publishing “pro-choice” information at this time, and I wasn’t sure if it was legal to mention her by name or include her in the story. Is it?

To answer your first question, a novel about a young women of limited means who gets pregnant by a man of greater social standing who rejects her, is a fairly common theme in literature. I don’t see that as being too racy for a Christian fiction publisher. To answer your second question, Margaret Sanger was a historical figure, and novelists routinely tackle historical figures in fictitious/imaginative ways. It would not be at all uncommon or inappropriate to include her name or her words in your novel.

I write inspirational African American historical romance, and have won major writing contests. Still, it has been very difficult to get requests from CBA agents. My perspective is that in inspirational fiction, you need an agent to get to the editors. My options so far have been to self-publish or to take the inspirational label off of my works and go for general market agents instead. I think there is an entire market that is being ignored and most agents/editors don’t know what it is. So which do you think I should do? Self-publish or go for ABA?

A couple thoughts come to mind… First, you may not be talking with the right CBA agent. The best place to meet CBA fiction agents is at the ACFW conference, which happens every September. Let me encourage you to try and attend that this fall, if at all possible. It will put you face to face with a couple dozen agents who work in CBA. Second, it’s certainly possible that a more general market audience would be best for your novel (though I haven’t read it, so I’m obviously taking a wild surmise). Perhaps you could talk with a good editor of African-American fiction about the salability of your manuscript in the general market. Third, it’s also possible that self-publishing is a great choice for you, so long as you have a way to get the books in front of your audience. The reason most authors fail at indie publishing is because they can write,but they can’t market or sell their work. So evaluate your ability to get your manuscript in front of your intended readership. Does that help?

If you have a question you’ve always wanted to ask a literary agent, send it my way — I’ll happily get to it in April!

Sitting down to breakfast with an agent…

April 2nd, 2014 | Agents, Career, CBA, Current Affairs, Marketing and Platforms, Publishing, Questions from Beginners, Trends | 3 Comments

Okay, so if you could sit down to breakfast with a literary agent, what would you ask him (or her)? I’m taking this month to let people send in questions of any sort — whatever it is they want to ask, if they could be face to face with an agent.

As an American who lives outside of the US (and doesn’t have the budget to fly between countries more than once every few years), is there anything I should keep in mind about finding an agent? Are agents going to have different expectations for me than for someone living in the US? Are publishers going to be leery of taking on projects from people like me?

Yes, there are some things to keep in mind… Publishers are going to want to know if you ever come stateside, and if so, how often. They want to know if you’re going to be an active participant in the marketing of your book. They want to make sure you understand the American market, and are willing to market to US readers. (I represent authors in England, France, New Zealand, and Austrlia, so I’m familiar with the expectations.) So you can expect an agent will query you about these types of issues. I don’t think an agent will necessarily have different expectations of you (except for wondering why the rest of the world is always in love with Bill Clinton, when most Americans tend to think he was a good politician and a slimy human being), but the core will be the same — can you write? will you meet deadlines? will you help promote your book? will you be low maintenance?

It’s fair to ask if publishers will be leery… My sense is that US publishers are certainly more cautious with an author selling into the US market who lives overseas. They realize that things like radio and TV interviews are harder, there are few personal appearances, and sometimes cultural differences will arise. So make it clear that you’re an enthusiastic participant.

I’m under contract for my first two books. At what point should I try to find an agent? And should I wait to see how they do, or talk with agents now? I was told by someone I don’t need one now.

Excellent question. There’s no right or wrong time to get an agent. And I’m not an agent evangelist, trying to convince every author they need to sign on with someone. I would say you need to consider some things — do you know the contract you signed? Do you understand it? Did you push for the best deal possible? If there is a problem, can you speak up for yourself and get it resolved? Can you negotiate the next contract yourself? Do you need someone to talk through marketing with? Do you know how to decipher a royalty statement and talk through any problems? Most important, who is going to give you career advice? (Warning: Do NOT go to your publisher for career advice.) You may not need one now, or you may feel it’s the perfect time to start talking with someone, just to create a plan for the future.

For the record, I often hear people give the whole “you don’t need an agent” advice, but I notice it tends to come from people who don’t know jack (unpublished authors or writers who re self-publishing and claim to have it all together, when in fact they’re not making any money) OR from super-bestselling indie authors who hit the jackpot and can’t understand why everyone doesn’t do the same. The authors of THE SHACK were famous for saying they didn’t need an agent… and then it all fell apart and they started suing each other, since the deal was so badly put together. Now they all have agents. Color me surprise.

I’ve not had an agent to date, but I’m considering getting one after having had 15 books published by various publishers. However, I write picture books, middle grade, and YA. Some religious, some secular. Would an agent insist on (and be able to) rep all my future books, considering they are as varied as they are?

Agents tend to be strongest in certain fields. I do a lot of fiction — literary, suspense/thriller, romance, noir, the occasional other genre. I also do a lot of nonfiction — spiritual, business, self-help, lifestyle, memoir. There are also things I don’t do — cookbooks, poetry, children’s books, etc. If you’re going to get an agent, find someone who specializes in children’s book, talk about the breadth of your work, and let them know what genres you write in. That said, you’ll find there are few of us who work with both religious and secular publishing houses. There are a few — all of us at MacLit, Greg Johnson at Wordserve, Natasha Kern with fiction, Deidre Knight’s group, Carol Mann… but the list is relatively small.

Why are agents/editors so completely unwilling to take any risk to appeal to new markets?

Huh? I don’t find that to be true. I tend to represent in certain areas (see the previous question), but I still am open to new genres and ideas. Publishers find success in some areas and tend to stay within those lines, but I frequently have discussions with editors about new markets and new ideas. Perhaps the idea you’re proposing is too far outside the box?

What would you like to ask an agent? Send it along…

Questions you’d ask an agent…

April 1st, 2014 | Agents, Career, CBA, Current Affairs, Film, Publishing, Questions from Beginners, Self-Publishing, The Business of Writing | 7 Comments

So this month we’re going to let you ask whatever you’ve always wanted to ask a literary agent. You send me the questions (or stick them in the “comments” section), and I’ll try to answer them, or get another agent to answer them. First up, some questions that came in yesterday…

Suppose you have a character in your novel that would be perfect for a particular actor. Should you tell your agent about it and let them handle it?

You could… but it probably won’t get very far. It’s rare that a project gets pitched to an actor in a role, unless it’s a major actor with clout. (So, for example, if you had a role that was perfect for Leonardo DiCaprio, you could try and talk with his agent. Um, and you would be author #5962 who has the “perfect” role for him.)

If I have an agent, then decide to write a self-pubbed novel, how can I include my agent in the process?

This is one of the things happening in publishing these days that is still in process, so there’s no one right answer for every situation. You could ask your agent to help you with it — the editing, the copyediting, the formatting, the uploading, the cover, etc., then pay a percentage as a commission. OR you could see if your agent is producing a line of books, make it part of that line, and pay a certain commission to him or her. (For example, we’re helping our authors create a co-op line of clean romances.) OR you could do it all yourself and not pay the agent anything. OR you could do it yourself, but work with your agent to help with things like marketing and selling, and pay a commission.

I am brand new to the industry, and delving into the potential of writing fiction. So what are the first steps in identifying the right agent, reaching out and establishing that agent/author relationship, and writing and getting a publisher to release the first novel?

Okay, the first step is to learn to write. That might seem too simplistic, but without a great manuscript, you’re not going to land an agent, editor, or publishing deal. This is particularly true in fiction, where a debut novelist will not be getting a deal without a completed manuscript. So I’d recommend you complete your manuscript, then join a critique group to get some other eyes on it, listen to what other writers have to say, and eventually talk with a good fiction editor about what needs to be done in order to create a great manuscript. You should know that the average number of completed manuscripts an author creates is SIX before he or she lands a publishing deal.

As for the next steps, once your manuscript is ready, you’ll probably find it’s easiest to connect to agents either face to face at a writing conference (check the conference website to see which agents are attending, then do some research to see who is there that might be a fit for your novel), or through a friend. I find the majority of authors I currently represent were introduced to me by authors I already represent. Once you’ve got a great manuscript and an agent, you’ll be off and running.

Do you think Christian fiction is where Christian music was a couple decades ago – where certain music was deemed “UnChristian” or was too controversial to be accepted by the mainstream? My opinion is that after all that type of controversy cleared out, Christian music got really good. Or maybe it was vice versa — the music got better and then the controversy died.

I’ve had various forms of this question asked of me quite a bit recently. (For those who don’t know, we represent a lot of inspirational fiction, as well as general market fiction.) I can see why you might think that, but I don’t believe the two situations are analogous. Contemporary Christian music was faced with having to break out of the narrow, church-youth-group type of audience, so some performers (Any Grant is a great example) was criticized as being “too worldly” when she began doing music that was not strictly about Jesus or her spiritual life. Eventually contemporary Christian music saw a bunch of performers bust out, much of it became part of the mainstream, and the entire industry saw the financials change as it moved away from full CD’s and toward single-title downloads — so most music performers these days make the bulk of their money from concerts and other live venues, rather than from music sales.

Book publishing is going through a different change. We’re still selling complete projects (books, not just chapters), but the vehicles are altered. A reader can download an ebook from Amazon, or buy a printed book at Barnes & Noble, and each choice is unique. The end result is different, the delivery mechanism is different, the marketing is different, the basic audiences are different… and that’s why I keep telling people that we need to see digital books as completely separate projects from printed books. (Whereas music was music, no matter how it arrived in the customer’s hands.) The advent of ebooks has led to a ton of startup companies, a revision in royalties, a scaling back in advances, a decline in intermediaries, more crud on the market, but more opportunity to make money for authors. A seminal shift in publishing. But back to your question — No, I don’t think we’re seeing authors being viewed as “unChristian,” so much as we’re seeing a combination of more publishing categories for CBA fiction, declining overall sales for the legacy CBA fiction publishers, and a desire to play it safe (which is why Christian fiction is swimming in romances, but has a limited number of new literary titles being released by major houses). There is still a place for thoughtful inspirational fiction, but right now that’s become tougher to sell to traditional publishing houses.

Got a question you’ve always wanted to ask a literary agent? Sent it along and I’ll get to it shortly.

What have you always wanted to ask an agent?

March 31st, 2014 | Career, Current Affairs, Publishing, Questions from Beginners, The Business of Writing | 8 Comments

I started this blog seven and a half years ago, as a way to simply answer the questions writers have about the process. Some wanted to ask about writing, others about publishing, still others about marketing. People asked about careers, they asked about proposals, and they asked about contracts. Lately we’ve had a ton of people asking about indie publishing and working with Amazon to become a hybrid author.

In the month of April, I thought we’d do an “ask me anything” segment. So… what have you always wanted to ask a literary agent? I’ve got a backlog of more than 200 questions, but I thought I’d begin by simply asking the people who read this blog a question: If you could sit with me over a cup of coffee or a beer somewhere, and ask anything you wanted, what would you want to know? What would you like to chat about?

Drop a question in the “comments” section below, or send me an email at chip (at) macgregorliterary(dot)com, and I’ll try to offer short answers to your questions. You can ask about books, about proposals, about writing, career planning, marketing, platforms, proposals, or anything else. If I don’t know an answer, I’ll ask someone who does. If they don’t know, I’ll just make up something that sounds good. (Or maybe I’ll ask someone else.)

So there you have it — April is “ask the agent” month. Send me your tired, your poor, your huddled questions yearning to breath free. I’ll do my best to get you a good response.

-Chip

Thursdays with Amanda: How the Movie “UNDERWORLD” Perfectly Portrays Today’s Publishing World

March 27th, 2014 | Marketing and Platforms, Publishing, Self-Publishing, The Business of Writing, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

2014Amanda

Amanda Luedeke is a literary agent with MacGregor Literary. Every Thursday, she posts about growing your author platform. You can follow her on Twitter @amandaluedeke or join her Facebook group to stay current with her wheelings and dealings as an agent. Her author marketing book, The Extroverted Writer, is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

 

Have you seen Underworld?

In this rather awesome and yet equally terrible movie, the vampires and the lycans are at odds (duh). The vampires are snooty and privileged and literally SLEEPING UNDERGROUND while the world passes them by.  The lycans, on the other hand, are rule-breakers and thugs. They do what they want and for obvious reasons don’t get along with the vamps.

There is a particularly attractive lycan-hunting vampire girl who is tracking a lowly human that most women my age would know as Ben from Felicity. Ben from Felicity is being followed by lycans, and the hot vamp chick wants to know why. The truth is soon revealed when the lycans bite Ben from Felicity and turn him. By now the hot vampire lady is torn! She has grown to care for Ben from Felicity, and how can she love her enemy?! She eventually decides to get over herself and love him anyway, but then he is once again injured and near death (wimp). She does what she has been warned not to do and bites him, thus making him both vampire and lycan–a creation that is rumored to be stronger than either species. They call him a hybrid. Eventually, he is able to bring about peace between the clans.

So why do I bring this up? Why walk you through the ENTIRE movie premise?

Because it adequately portrays what’s happening in publishing, and every time I hear the term “hybrid author,” I immediately think of Ben from Felicity (and I wanted you to do so as well).

You see, traditional and digital/self-pubbing are at odds. Traditional publishing for the longest time was comprised of two camps. There were the industry people who saw what was happening and wanted to figure out a solution, and then there were the stuffy, somewhat elitist industry people who were looking the other way (i.e. vampire sleeping) while digital/self-publishing took off. Also true to the movie, the self-publishing side is more of a wild west in which the rules are meant to be broken and anything goes so long as no one ends up getting sued.

And authors in the midst of their careers are caught in the shuffle. They’re torn, much like the hot vampire chick was torn when Ben from Felicity was bitten! Do they stay true to their publisher? Or do they venture out on their own? Conversely, self-pub authors, when given the opportunity to go traditional, have an equally tough decision to make. Are they signing their careers away by getting with the big houses?

One by one we see traditionally published authors dabble in self-pubbing.  And we also see self-pubbing success stories trying their hand at traditional options.

The result? The industry is filling with hybrid authors who are more powerful, more connected, more happy, and typically more profitable than those who stay one one side or the other.

The hybrid authors get the best of both worlds, as they get marketing and brand support (not to mention in-store distribution) from traditional houses, while they maintain creative control and better royalty breaks from their self-publishing ventures.

How are publishers responding?

For awhile, publishers tried to fight it. We heard stories of publishers dropping authors who had ventured out on their own, and for the longest time it was very difficult to get an indie book entered into any kind of contest. Publishers also held tightly to non-compete clauses, and would say things like “why didn’t you show this project to me?” when an author would take something and either do it on their own or place it with a micro-publisher.

But things are changing. Industry pros are finding that authors are happier when they’re making money (big surprise there), and the beauty of self-publishing is that it brings it more cash. It makes becoming a full time author a bit more feasible. And it also helps the author provide content to readers more regularly, thus developing a stronger brand and a more dedicated following, which traditional houses can appreciate.

How Do You Become a Hybrid Author?

For unpublished authors, it’s a matter of producing quality work…quickly. It’s about growing your sales numbers and catching the eye of an agent or publisher. From there, things tend to work pretty smoothly. You can negotiate a deal that preserves your right to self-publish here and there (you may need to slow the frequency with which you publish down a bit), and doing so won’t surprise a publisher.

For published authors, it’s a trickier dance…and having an agent would come in handy. You need to begin negotiating those clauses that would potentially hinder your self-pubbing career. You also need to develop a strategy for publication that would prevent the two from conflicting (timing, genre, marketing…all of these have the potential of creating major rifts in your publishing relationships).

There’s a lot more to it than this, but the idea here is that hybrid publishing can boost any career…it’s a marketing tool as much as it’s a career move. And I’m excited to dive into the topic with you.

Have questions or thoughts about the hybrid thing? Sound off below!

And the biggest successes of 2013 were…

March 25th, 2014 | Author News, Deals, Books, Career, Current Affairs, Publishing, The Business of Writing, Trends | 8 Comments

In this week’s issue of Publisher’s Weekly, they have their annual report on the bestsellers of the previous year. I always enjoy reading about it and discussing it with authors, because nothing gives perspective more than a number. You see, authors like to talk about having books “sell a million copies,” and I’ve frequently seen proposals in which writers make wild promises about selling millions, since the audience for a particular topic is considered huge. (“There are 246 million people with dandruff in this country! There’s a ginormous market for my book on hair care!”)

But then every spring PW releases its report, and everyone gets a dose of reality. How many hardcover novels sold a million copies in 2013? One — Dan Brown’s Inferno. How many hardcover nonfiction books sold a million copies? Three — Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Jesus and two of the “Duck Commander” books, Happy, Happy, Happy and Si-Cology. How many trade paper books sold a million copies? One — and it was released decades ago… F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. There was only one mass market book that sold a million copies, proving that this formerly big-number format is quickly dying off, replaced by digital books — George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones.

On the children’s side, there were a handful of books that passed the million mark. Jeff Kinney’s Hard Luck: Diary of a Wimpy Kid #8 sold more than three million copies, and was the biggest seller in one format of any book sold last year. But Veronica Roth’s Allegiant and Insurgent, Rick Riordan’s The House of Hades, and John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars also hit the mark. (Two other titles probably did: Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief and Dr. Suess’ Green Eggs and Ham, but the numbers are unclear because of several factors.) Still, when it comes to print copies, that means there were all of thirteen titles that sold a million copies last year. And there were roughly 250,000 books releasing in print last year, and approximately five million books in print for sale. Thirteen books. Makes one pause to think, doesn’t it?

On the positive side, more hardcover novels than ever (a total of 251 different titles) hit the bestseller lists than ever before. But on the negative side, the list of hardcover fiction that sold more than 100,000 copies comes to just 89 titles — the lowest I’ve ever seen. Also on the positive side, there were a bunch of Christian titles on the various lists. But on the negative side, of those 89 hardcover novels that sold more than 100,000 copies, only ONE was from a first-time author. In other words, the best way to be a bestselling author is to have been a bestselling author last year. Sigh…

The ebook sales in PW are harder to discover. PW relies on publishers to send them figures, so self-published books (and, let’s face it, most small e-publishers) simply aren’t included. There were only two ebook titles that, according to their study, sold more than a million copies: Dan Brown’s Inferno and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. With the proliferation of indie publishing (whether by the author, an author co-op, or by a small independent press) we’re in a state where getting complete numbers is nearly impossible. And, I’ll admit it, while I’m very supportive of indie publishing, I tend to discount what some of them report. For example, on Randy Ingermanson’s wonderful “Advanced Fiction Writing Blog,” during a discussion of Hugh Howey’s interesting “Author Earnings” article, Mr. Howey came onto the site to say that he knew of “several (indie) authors who sold multiple millions last year.” Um… I doubt that. Randy’s own analysis (the guy has a PhD in quantum physic) was that there could theoretically be two authors who sold a couple million ebooks, and another handful that sold a million. So the irrational exuberance of claiming to know a bunch of authors who all self-pubbed and sold “multiple millions” may be encouraging to author wannabe’s, but I don’t think it’s accurate.

That said, if you take a look at the article in PW, you’ll see some really good news: the overall number of ebooks reported, even though it’s basically from traditional publishers, reveals that more books are selling than ever before. The explosion of ebooks and self-publishing has been a fabulous step for authors, even though we’re all still trying to figure out how to track the numbers and understand the new systems. Sure, there’s been a migration away from mass market books to Kindles and Nooks and iPads, but the overall numbers of titles selling is greater (and hey, there are still a significant number of mass market titles sold). This is great news for authors — books are continuing to sell, more people are reading than ever before, there is a greater need for content, and there are more opportunities to publish and be read than ever before in the history of the world. What’s to complain about? This is the golden age of publishing, people.

And one last thought comes to mind as you look over the article… Publishing is very much like buying a lottery ticket. (Or, as Joe Konrath once put it, “Publishing is a carny game.”) Some people can work at it, study the probabilities, try their hardest, and never get anywhere. Others stop by 7/11 one day, drop a dollar on a lark, and find themselves living in Beverly Hills and driving a Maserati. Hey – life ain’t fair. But understand that’s the system. Writing is art, and I never knew anyone who felt the world of art was going to be easy. You pick up a paintbrush, take lessons, work with a mentor, practice, and work your way through a thousand canvases before you’re any good, and even then you still might not get noticed. Or you fall in love with the ballet, invest thousands in lessons, spend your life doing plies, and hope to latch on to a little dance company in Toledo. Or maybe you buy a used Stratocaster, invest in lessons, start a band in your garage, and play every school dance and grange hall in hopes of getting discovered. Occasionally something works — your band gets noticed and you’re offered a job as an opener for a headliner, or you get cast in a lead role that gets rave reviews, or your sculpture garners a headline in a major art magazine. You bust out. It happens. Sometimes it’s because of your great craft, your unique interpretation, or your artistic vision. Other times it’s dumb luck — your book hits the same time the culture happens to take an interest in your topic, or your title appeals to somebody at USA Today. That’s life — you do your best, and sometimes you hit the lottery. Or you don’t, in most cases, and you continue to work at it because it’s art and you enjoy it. But there’s no sure thing in publishing. Books are selling (more books than ever, thank God), and opportunities abound. I still think you’ll do better if you practice and get a mentor and learn something about the craft, no matter the success of Fifty Shades of Gray. But this year’s report once again shows there’s no guarantee to success — and some of our best writers may not be selling all that well. Still, there’s a chance of finding success, whether modest or great, and we do it because we love words. That, to me, is always the point of reading about the biggest successes in our industry.

================
To see the blog post from J.A. Konrath that I referenced above, go here: http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2014/02/eisler-publishing-is-lottery-konrath.html

Making sure I get the story straight…

March 19th, 2014 | Books, Career, CBA, Current Affairs, Marketing and Platforms, Publishing, Religion, The Business of Writing, Trends | 14 Comments

I was once let go from a job in publishing for “creative differences,” the same week another guy was let go, at another company, for some very different reasons. We worked in the same industry, are the same race and age, and he lived in a city where I had once lived. Several people got our stories mixed up. I had a writing conference cancel my participation at their event, saying they had heard rumors that cast me in a bad light, and that they didn’t want me coming. You can imagine my surprise when I was told they were un-inviting me, since none of what they’d heard was actually true. I invited them to call my former boss, to talk with the people around me, and to check my references. But I also got angry — I mean, they made their decisions based on a RUMOR? They’d never even called me to ask about it? They never checked facts with anyone at my former employer? Nope. They just heard a story and took it as gospel … and, to make matters worse, the other guy (the one who had actually been fired from that other house) was scheduled to speak at their conference. (I didn’t mention that to the conference director. I figured she could figure out the truth on her own damn time.)

I’ve never gone back to that conference, and I’ve never forgotten how much that error hurt. It’s why I want to make sure I get my facts straight on the stories I write, so that I don’t share something hurtful about somebody unfairly. I don’t mind offering bad news, and I realize some people will read my blog to get some information that publishers are too frequently reluctant to share, but I want to make sure I get my facts correct.

Here’s why I mention all of this: I got a couple of phone calls from publishers after my last blog, and they led to share several thoughts…

1. Mark Driscoll, the Seattle pastor who I’ve had bad experiences with in the past, and who I raked over the coals on Monday for having bought his way onto the bestseller lists, offered up an apology yesterday. [You can find it here: http://tinyurl.com/nbajg67 ] I have mixed emotions about this… On the one hand, I tend to roll my eyes at the fact he didn’t own up to plagiarism. He preferred to reference things “we” did, instead of just taking responsibility for books with his own name on them. His solution (to stay away from social media and not do many conferences this year) sounds, to me, like an effort to simply stay out of the limelight. And the concept of sending a private letter to church members only, taking it down so it doesn’t get passed around to news sources, and simply trying to make a private statement about a public error is TERRIBLE. For crying out loud, who is giving this guy advice?

2. BUT, on the other hand, the guy seems to have made an effort to make things right. A couple of people who know him well told me he’s actually been changed by this. That he’s considerably less full of himself than he used to be. That he really does want to make an effort to be more of a pastor and less of a celebrity. And you know what? I think making a good-faith effort deserves respect.

3. One publisher who called me said that, in his mind, the plagiarism was inadvertent — research assistants had done it, and Mark never purposefully intended to steal anyone’s words. So that publisher said it wasn’t really “plagiarism,” but a simple error. I tend to disagree with that notion — not because I think Mark Driscoll was actually trying to get away with stealing someone’s words, but because the book had his name on it. Um… this is MY blog. I type the words. When somebody else blogs, their name goes on the post (for example, yesterday’s excellent blog by Erin Buterbaugh). So if I hire somebody, and they steal some words and post them as mine, then it’s ME who is responsible, not some unnamed assistant. My intention may not be to harm anyone, but when it happens, I’m the one who has to come out, tell the truth, and apologize. If I’m too big and famous to write, or too busy with work to actually check the words, then perhaps I ought not to have my name on the cover, since I didn’t actually write it. All that said, I understand that the plagiarism was probably inadvertent. But, in my view, it’s still plagiarism, no matter the intent, and still requires an author to take responsibility and apologize.

4. Another publisher called to say that ResultSource is a good marketing company, who has worked with numerous bestselling authors, and they do a good job. He noted their speciality is helping speakers get a bunch of books sold by targeting their list of followers, and encouraging them to all purchase the book the week it launches. JUST SO WE’RE CLEAR, I’m all for that approach. I think any marketing an author does is aimed at selling books. An author does a bunch of radio shows, or does a blog tour, or speaks at conferences, and says to everyone, “Go buy my book!” That’s just marketing — getting in front of one’s potential audience and trying to convince them to buy your product. So let’s be clear: I have no problem with an author marketing his or her book. ResultSource apparently does this very well. But I was told, by two different people, that what was unique about this campaign was that those outside of Mark Driscoll’s following were used to purchase copies of the book, and World Magazine reported that numerous credit cards were used to purchase the copies specifically to get around the reporting strategies of the New York Times bestseller list. In other words, it wasn’t the core group, who you would expect to be encouraged to purchase the book, but outsiders who would not normally have bought it. That’s why I said this was a case, in my view, of gaming the system.

5. And that leads to another thing I heard from publishers — that the New York Times is so tight-lipped about what “the system” actually is for getting on the bestseller list, they have no idea how to manipulate it. Nobody really knows what numbers the NYT uses to actually create their list, and publishers complained to me that frequently a book selling particularly well but with an unpopular topic (such as a book featuring conservative politics, or a book about conservative Christianity) won’t make the list, while a book that obviously sold far fewer copies but with a more liberal perspective will make the list. Please understand I’m not arguing, only reporting what more than one publisher told me.

6. And that in turn means that the only way to insure a book sells the required number of copies to guarantee a spot on the list (in current terms, that means selling roughly 11,000 copies in a week), is to have some sort of marketing plan that focuses on selling a bunch of copies all at once. Again, I’m all for marketing books, as evidenced by the content of this blog. Every publisher I talked to said they want to hit the NYT list, and they’ll do all they can to hit it, but they also insisted they would never work with a company that tried to cheat their way on by basically hiring strangers to go purchase copies. I thought I’d mention that, since a lot of people have maintained that “everybody does that.” I made it clear in my previous post, and I still hold to the statement, that NOT everybody is doing this to try and cheat their way onto the list. I stand by these words: “I’ve never known one of the respectable legacy publishers to pull this sort of schtick.”

7. That said, it’s also clear nearly every publishing house is working with ResultSource. Not to have them buy copies via strangers, but to have them work with an author’s platform in order to encourage everyone to purchase a copy the same week. Again, for the record, I don’t have a problem with that. And I’m not here to bash ResultSource, who is clearly doing some good things, since every single publisher I spoke with works with them. (I sent a note to the president of ResultSource about all of this, by the way. I want to make sure the facts are correct. But their website is shut down and the phone not working. Um… I have no idea if this is related to the controversy or not.)

8. Finally, one publisher who is well-acquainted with the situation told me that the financial figure that was reported in the World article (“more than $200,000″) was not accurate. I don’t have any way of corroborating that, but it’s a source I consider reliable, and someone who was not the publisher of the book in question, so this person doesn’t have a dog in the hunt. I think it’s only fair to mention that this individual told me the actual number paid by Mark Driscoll was considerably lower than the number reported in the story.

Again, I once had a bad situation with Mr. Driscoll. He said something to me that I discovered was patently untrue, I’ve not been a fan of his macho crap in the pulpit, I’ve grown weary of the mindless hero-worship I have detected in his followers, so I have tended to be a critic and look with doubt on some of his words. But… well, I want to make sure I have my facts straight, so I’m not doing exactly the thing I have been critical of others doing to me. And if a guy says he wants to change, I need to have the grace to take him at his word. Sure, I’d prefer Mr. Driscoll owned up to the plagiarism in his works, whether he did it deliberately or not. I’d prefer he took responsibility for the problems, and not blamed unnamed assistants, or outside counsel, or anyone other than himself, whose name is on the books. I’d prefer if he were going to apologize, he did so publicly, since the errors were made publicly, instead of sort-of apologizing but then hiding the note away. I’d prefer his board didn’t look like a bunch of sycophants, praising him in the midst of obvious errors, instead of promising to ensure this never happens again. And I’d prefer he was more forthcoming about the whole affair, since Americans have a tremendous ability to forgive when a public person is up-front about his or her errors (but they’ll go after someone who waffles like a reporter digging for a story). So there are things I’d prefer. But most of all, I’d prefer to be correct in the things I share on this blog. I hope I got all of them correct today.

What’s wrong with buying your way onto the bestseller list?

March 14th, 2014 | Author News, Deals, Books, CBA, Collaborating and Ghosting, Current Affairs, Deep Thoughts, Publishing, Questions from Beginners, Religion, The Business of Writing, Trends | 113 Comments

Last week I made a point of saying that I think a guy who buys his way onto the bestseller lists is a weasel, and I had a bunch of people write to ask me why. This is a worthwhile topic for everyone in publishing, so let me offer some background…

Mark Driscoll pastors a large church in Seattle. Last fall he was accused of plagiarizing the words of another author, Peter Jones, in his latest book, and in addition there were other examples given of him plagiarizing, including pages of text recreated  word-for-word from a Bible commentary and stuck into one of the church’s publications. The people at Driscoll’s church made the situation worse, first claiming it was okay because one of the obviously plagiarized documents had never been sold, then changing their story when it turns out it had indeed been sold, but saying they hadn’t made much, then blaming it all on un unnamed research assistant (even though it had Mark Driscoll’s name on it), then taking pains to criticize the “haters” instead of owning up to their own ignorance and laziness. The whole thing was a mess. Driscoll clearly plagiarized (whether you want to cut him slack and call it something else), and his publisher examined the book and released a statement that admitted there were “inadequate citations,” but defending him for handling the situation well. In the end, the entire mess faded away. I was a bit surprised, since I’ve seen books get cancelled and editorial careers get ruined over less than this. Still, we all moved on.

Until last week, when it was revealed that Rev. Driscoll had paid a marketing firm, ResultSource, more than $200,000 to get his book onto the New York Time bestseller list. The scheme included hiring people to purchase 6000 copies of the book in bookstores, then ordering another 5000 copies in bulk. They even made sure to use more than 1000 different payment methods, so BookScan couldn’t track all the purchases back to a single source. In other words, they cheated to manipulate the system, got the book onto the list (for that one week), and did it so that Driscoll can refer to himself as “a New York Times bestselling author.”

I was critical of him for doing it, since I don’t think gaming the system is the right thing to do. It’s unfair. It’s lazy. It’s dishonest. And it’s basically nothing more than rampant egotism. But I had several people write to me, or post on Facebook, that this is common practice. A couple people said “everybody is doing it,” and some claimed “publishers are doing that all the time.” My response: Bullshit. Sorry if that offends, but we need to call it what it is. This is NOT standard practice. Everybody is NOT doing it. I used to be an associate publisher with Time-Warner, and this is not something we ever did, nor could I conceive of us doing it. I’ve also worked with every one of the Big Six publishers, as well as dozens of smaller publishers and every CBA publishing house, and I’ve never known one of the respectable legacy publishers to pull this sort of schtick.

Are the bestseller lists rigged? Perhaps, to a small degree — certainly Amazon seems to include an inordinate number of their own titles on the Amazon bestseller lists, and occasionally we’ll all be surprised at how a book with modest sales somehow wound up on a bestseller list because of the strange (and secret) way some of them account for the books. But for the most part, the books showing up on the lists are there because of sales. Honest, straightforward sales. Sometimes we get shocked when a crappy book (say, for example, Fifty Shades of Gray) suddenly starts showing up everywhere — but it showed up because, in spite of the boring story and fourth-grade writing ability, the book SOLD. Like it or not, that book wasn’t snuck onto a list dishonestly. Um… do we really want a PASTOR cheating his way onto the NYT list? And, matched with the fact that his name was on books that he now claims he didn’t actually write, what does that say about the guy? 

I find the whole thing incredibly lazy, and was shocked to discover the church itself admitted they didn’t know if church funds had been used to pay the bill. (Really? They spent nearly a quarter of a million dollars to stroke the author’s ego, and they don’t know where the money came from? Let’s just say that stretches the bounds of credulity.) This is the sort of news that is bound to come out, and will hurt you, since it demonstrates your laziness and need for attention. So no, I’m not one of those in the “he’s just spreading the Good News camp.” That’s baloney. If Mark Driscoll just wanted to spread the good news, he could have purchased $200,000 worth of books and given them away. This was done to make himself feel important, and in doing so, he does potential damage to honest authors, who work to write and market their books.

So today Mark Driscoll admits, in an interview in Charisma, the scheme was cooked up and a bad idea… but, of course, he’s not to blame. Nope. He explained that “outside counsel advised us to use ResultSource.” So those pesky outside counselors are to blame, like that pesky unnamed research assistant who plagiarized is to blame. Not Mark. Not the guy with his name all over stuff. Huh-uh. Instead, his board made a statement that they appreciate his “endurance through false accusation.” Um… excuse me, but what exactly was the FALSE part? His book contains the un-cited work of another writer, which his own publisher acknowledged was inappropriate  He had clearly plagiarized materials with his name on it. A company was paid a pile of money to pump his book and dishonestly get it onto bestseller lists. Those are all facts. What exactly is the “false” part? Well, except for the part where Mark claims he actually wrote any of this, I mean. I’m fairly certain that part is false. 

What’s wrong with buying your way onto the bestseller list? It’s an expensive, short-term ego stroke for the lazy and dishonest, and it excludes real writers from actually making the list. My two cents.

=======================

You can find out more information on Mark Driscoll, plagiarism, and buying your way onto a bestseller list by going to World Magazine, Slate, the blaze.com, and the writings of Warren Throckmorton. You could probably also go to Mark Driscoll’s site, but be aware that, even though it has his name on it, he probably didn’t write it, and if there are errors it’s somebody else’s fault. 

 

What are the lessons you’ve learned about marketing your books?

March 12th, 2014 | Career, Current Affairs, Marketing and Platforms, Publishing, Questions from Beginners, The Business of Writing | 12 Comments

Okay, so I just completed a ten-part series on marketing your book. I’d had a lot of folks ask about the process, so I simply went back to a recently published “Intro to Marketing” textbook, and walked through the basic information in ten steps. (You can find them by wandering back through the last two weeks of blog posts.)

Now here’s my question for you… What lessons have you learned about marketing your book? What has worked? What has not worked? What advice would you give to other authors? What parts of the process did you enjoy? Which parts did you despise? And as you approach your next book, what do you plan to do?

I hear all sorts of questions from authors about book marketing. Some love trailers, others hate them. Some love doing blog tours, others find them a waste of time. Some spend hours on social media pushing their book, others find all that effort amounts to nothing. Some love talking on the radio, others feel uncomfortable and believe they’d be better off writing something. So… give me your thoughts. I’d love to hear what lessons you can share with others about marketing your book.

And I’ll start: The single most important lesson I’ve learned when marketing my own books is to create a checklist and work through it. When I fail to do that, I skip some things or duplicate others. I also tend to push off the tasks I don’t enjoy. So make a checklist, have each task clearly written down, and assign it to a person and a date. Then work your checklist. The most helpful thing I know.

And if I can share a second thought, it would be don’t expect everything to work. It took me awhile to figure out that marketing is like baseball — if 30% of the things I do are successful, I’m going to have a hit. But that means a lot of the stuff I do won’t seem to have much effect on sales or name recognition. That’s just the business, and it’s too much wasted energy to get worked up over it. Just accept the odds and keep pushing forward.

What about you? What lessons would you share with others?